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article imageDirector Heath Cozens talks the power of 'Doglegs' Special

By Michael Thomas     Apr 30, 2015 in Entertainment
Toronto - Doglegs is a Tokyo wrestling league for disabled fighters, and director Heath Cozens took on the monumental task of translating their experiences in an emotional way. Cozens spoke with Digital Journal on filming, the league's future and much more.
Doglegs, now screening at Hot Docs, tells the story of the titular group including "Sambo" Shintaro and other fighters in and outside of the ring. Disability doesn't prevent them from fighting each other and even the able-bodied, and the film doesn't force any perspectives on audiences.
"Doglegs for me was pretty mind-blowing, as a group," Cozens says. "I kind of wonder how much credit I can take for the film. I kind of feel like I'm just translating the experience that I had, trying to recreate that."
The film took five years of filming, and it took six months just to get access to the fighters. Kitajima, the organizer of the group, was probably a little skeptical given the way media had treated the group in the past. Cozens mentioned an unnamed TV channel who would impose its own messages on the Doglegs fighters, leading the group to dispel the channel halfway through filming.
"I guess I was a little bit cautious about that, mostly the fact that I'm a foreigner didn't make it that much easier," he says. "Eventually I think (Kitajima) sort of came to the conclusion that it would interesting to see how I would frame their story."
Though Cozens isn't a wrestling or fighting fan — nor a fan of films about people with disabilities that dictate how audiences should feel — he did find the idea behind Doglegs interesting.
"To be a good fighter you have to be really zen, which is something I realized," he says. "That's always an interesting dichotomy to me — to be good at violence you have to be quite peaceful."
On the group, he says, "All the social message is right there in the bedrock of what they're doing. They don't need to talk about it, it's already there. It's kind of like the conversation that they initiate happens inside your own head, and your own reactions to what they're doing."
Filming was sometimes an uncomfortable experience, especially backstage after the Doglegs fights took place.
Scene from  Doglegs
Scene from 'Doglegs'
Courtesy Hot Docs
"You don't know how much space you can take without being invasive," Cozens says. "And you're trying to think like a director and a cinematographer at the same time. I look at some of those shots and I'm like 'Did I shoot that right?' 'Was I too close?' It's tricky. It's not like you can ask permission to film someone while they're crying, you know? You just have to go with it."
Doglegs features compelling portraits: the "star," Shintaro; the clinically-depressed and cancer-stricken Yuki Nakajima; L'Amant, who suffers from cerebral palsy and "self-medicates" with alcohol. But there were several fighters Cozens wasn't able to include.
One wanted to be a luchador, and ate a lot to bulk up — he ended up with diabetes, lost a leg and went blind. As a day job, he works with therapy dolphins on Japan's coast.
"He told me this story about how he goes in there at night and he cleans the tanks," Cozens says. "He sits there on the edge of the tanks, singing to them. To me, that image was so beautiful and I really wanted to film with him." However, the man was reluctant in front of the cameras.
Then there's Mimura: "Nobody knows his story, all they know is that members of the group have seen him sleeping in the street. He told me that he works in a design studio in Sapporo and everyone was like 'What, really? We thought he was homeless.'" Cozens says in wrestling, there's no such thing as fact-checking. Everyone has a story, and no one will challenge them on it.
Scene from  Doglegs
Scene from 'Doglegs'
Courtesy Hot Docs
The film's climactic fight is teased throughout and appears at the end — Shintaro wants to retire, but wants one last battle with his rival (and best friend) Kitajima. Kitajima agrees, but says retirement will the prize for the winner. At some point in the future when Kitajima and Shintaro are both out of the spotlight, will there be a Doglegs "next generation?"
"I don't know if there's anyone who can do what Kitajima does," Cozens says. "The way he arranges the matches and the way they frame everything — a cloak of irony and humour. The messaging is so provocative...I don't know if anyone can take over that... Basically when Kitajima goes, Doglegs will suffer."
The future isn't totally bleak for Doglegs once its public faces are gone, however; a few groups have formed similar leagues across Japan.
Beyond Hot Docs, Cozens is hoping to take Doglegs on the festival circuit, and hopes for a theatrical release in Japan. And he already has plans for his next film, called The Equalizer.
"It's about an ex-pat, Bavarian, ex-police sniper in Osaka," Cozens describes. "Combat fatigues, wrap-around sunglasses, bandanna, broken teeth, handlebar mustache, combat boots. He is known as the Equalizer in Osaka and he gives help in the form of legal advice and perhaps a little ass-kicking as well, when necessary, for the price of a train ticket." He filmed the man over a 15-year period and says the eventual product may be a bit more "loosey-goosey" in a playing a bit more with the medium.
But before that, Cozens hopes audiences will have a lot of questions when they finish watching Doglegs.
"I'm kind of hoping it's one of those films where you'll still thinking about it three days down the track," he says. "Can't get it out of your head. Trying to work out how you should feel about it. Because it's what it did for me — that's the experience I had with the group."
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